From the very beginning, the biblical narrative insists that human beings are not isolated individuals, we are created for community. Few Christians I know would dispute the idea that we’re made for community. In many cases, though, the communities in which we gather function like isolated individuals. We have been so deeply influenced by the values of individualism and personal responsibility so deeply held by our society, that we have begun to think we can exist on our own. When fear is added to this potent recipe of individualism and personal responsibility, it becomes really easy for Christians to develop a toxic self-centeredness that results in withdrawal from others or, worse, the kind of antagonism toward others that leads us to build both figurative and literal walls of hostility between ourselves and others.
But the Spirit of God calls us to something more. That calling often comes from poets and prophets, people who throughout the ages have called us to true community, to an outward orientation rather than an inward obsession. This vision of community sometimes seems idealistic, like nothing more than a pipe dream. And yet what these poets and prophets know is that if we commit ourselves to the practice of befriending, the Spirit of God can bring about something more wonderful than we could ask or imagine.
developing a welcoming relationship with someone we don’t yet understand, because we care more about them than any disagreement we may have with them.
Nearly 400 years ago, John Donne penned the following words, words that speak profoundly, despite the patriarchal language and dated expressions.
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
More recently, author George Saunders and the late musician Solomon Burke, have expressed in their own ways the same sentiments as Donne. Saunders uses satire to highlight the degree to which we’ve absorbed individualism into our hearts and minds. Burke, on the other hand, belts out a sermonic plea to recognize that our lives are bound up with every other life. We are never just individuals, we are always part of a community. Beyond that, we’re part of a community far broader than most of us realize or admit, and if everybody in that community isn’t free, “none of us are free.”
So where do we begin? Frederick Buechner offers us some helpful guidance for getting started with the practice of befriending in his book Whistling In The Dark.
If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces, but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in.
What would such “seeing” look like in action? Naomi Feil offers us a pretty good example.
May God give us ears to hear the words of these poets and prophets, whose words about community highlight the desperate need for us to become people committed to befriending. And may the Spirit plant these words deep within our hearts, so that we might begin to live them out each and every day.
Instruments Of Your Peace
Here are a few simple ways to open your life to God this week through the practice of befriending:
1: Choose a social/ethnic/racial/religious group that makes you uncomfortable. Commit to praying each day for this group in the coming week. Avoid praying prayers of criticism, judgment, or destruction. Instead, ask for God to help this group experience God’s life-changing love and grace, perhaps even through you.
2: Choose someone you don’t know at a social gathering (church, gym, party, etc.). Intentionally initiate a friendly conversation that helps them feel more comfortable and helps you get to know them better.
3: Whether you live in an urban neighborhood or on a few acres outside of town, choose someone who lives close by who you don’t know all that well. Be especially aware of and kind to them this week. See how God works through simple acts of friendship and kindness.
4: Shop or eat at a place of business located in an area of town you usually avoid. This will allow you to rub shoulders with people you wouldn’t normally encounter. Pay attention to how being in an unfamiliar place around unfamiliar people makes you feel. Imagine what it might take for you to connect with them on a deeper level.
This week’s playlist includes songs that touch on themes of empathy, appreciating our differences, our need to love and be loved, and the calling to befriend that is at the heart of what it means to be God’s people.